Elections-Argentina: Cristina’s Turn

(IPS) – For anyone close to Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, it’s almost impossible to talk about him without mentioning his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was elected as his successor Sunday. Although they have very different personalities, they are like two branches of the same tree — their mutual political platform.

The first woman to be directly elected president in Argentina garnered nearly 45 percent of the vote, followed by another female candidate, Elisa Carrió, who took 23 percent, the electoral commission reported.

"I admire her. I like her a lot. She was able to forge her own space, and a strong image, not independent of her husband but coexisting with him, without clashing."

This is what Fernández had to say about Hillary Clinton, the wife of former U.S. president Bill Clinton (1993-2001). Like Cristina, Hillary is a senator and lawyer, and she hopes to become the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party for next year’s elections.

In a world where women presidents and prime ministers are still an exception to the rule, the Kirchner-Fernández political partnership is similar to that of the Clintons. When the Argentine couple met with former president Clinton a month ago, in New York, Bill told Néstor that everyone was asking him what he would do if his wife was elected president in 2008.

"We both can give the same answer: I’m going to do whatever she tells me," he joked. Kirchner laughed, but didn’t respond. "Why didn’t you say anything?" his wife asked later, to which the president replied "Have you ever said everything I wanted you to say?"

"Cristina", as the president-elect identified herself during the campaign, was born in a middle-class family in the city of La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires, on Feb. 19, 1953, a few months after the death of Eva Duarte (Evita), the wife of then president Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955 and 1973-1974), who became a powerful leader in her own right as first lady and was already a legend before her early death by cancer.

Cristina’s father was a bus driver and her mother a homemaker. He belonged to the Radical Civic Union (UCR) and she to the Justicialista (Peronist) Party — the two forces that governed Argentina throughout the 20th century.

"I inherited the best of each of them," says Fernández, who grew up as a dissident Peronist and ended up standing in Sunday’s elections with a running-mate who came from the ranks of the UCR, Julio Cobos.

"My mother had photos of Evita in her wardrobe," recalls Fernández. Evita was beautiful in the photos, "like a fairy," she remembers.

But Fernández says she identifies with Evita’s other image: that of a combative, austere woman with her hair up in a bun and clenched fist held high, which was taken up in the 1970s by the young revolutionaries of the Peronist left.

The president-elect is a good public speaker, who does not need to read from her notes, something that her husband, who has a lisp, admires.

But she is also said to be cold. Unlike Kirchner, she avoids contact with people and is not easily moved. If she cries, she does so in private.

After beginning her studies in psychology, she entered law school at the University of La Plata. She met Kirchner during her student years, in the mid-1970s, when they were active members of the Peronist University Youth. But she fell out with the movement’s leaders.

Since those days, she has had a reputation as an intelligent, good-looking woman who takes great care over her personal appearance.

"The idea that if you are attractive you have to prove that you are intelligent always irritated me," she told Olga Wornat in the journalist’s authorised biography, titled "Queen Cristina".

In that sense she is Kirchner’s opposite, who has made his slightly dishevelled look a political trademark. Nor were they similar in college, where she was a much better student.

Wornat, who has known her since their student days, describes Fernández as indomitable, intelligent, controversial, bold in challenging the status quo and "ambitious like no other woman since Evita." She is also moody and volatile (some believe she is bipolar), vehement, generous, arrogant, vain, a good companion "and loyal, very loyal," says the author.

When the 22-year-old Fernández met Kirchner, he was drunk. She "made him study, neatened up his image a bit, kept him away from café meetings and guitar fests," and tried unsuccessfully to awaken an interest in literature, wrote another journalist, Walter Curia, in his book "The Last Peronist: The Hidden Face of Kirchner".

They got married six months after they met, on the eve of the 1976 coup. After a brief period in La Plata, they moved to Río Gallegos, the capital of the southern province of Santa Cruz, where they had two children, shared a law practice, saved and invested and built up a small fortune, and began to project their future political careers.

"We are a very symbiotic couple," Fernández said last week in one of the few interviews she gave to the local press.

With the restoration of democracy in 1983, after the bloody-seven-year military dictatorship, they returned to their political activism. In 1985 she was a member of the Justicialista national convention representing Santa Cruz, and in 1989 she was elected to the provincial legislature.

In 1987, her husband was elected mayor of the provincial capital, and in 1991 governor of Santa Cruz, a post he held for three consecutive terms.

Fernández was reelected in 1993 as provincial deputy. A year later, she and her husband both took part in the constituent assembly that amended the constitution, and she began to gain a reputation at the national level. In 1995 she was elected to the Senate, in 1997 to the lower house of Congress, and in 2001 to the Senate once again, representing Santa Cruz, her husband’s home province.

In 1997, she was marginalised by the Justicialista legislators after voting against several of the governing party’s draft laws. It was the last stretch of the government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999), who has since then been a political adversary of Kirchner and Fernández.

A few months after she won a seat in the Senate in 2001, Kirchner told her he would run for the presidency, to which she responded "You are completely crazy." By then, Fernández was a well-known and well-respected figure on the national political scene, but her husband was not.

As a result of the backing he received from Justicialista leader Eduardo Duhalde, Kirchner came in second place in the first round of elections in 2003, with just over 22 percent of the vote. But his rival, the badly weakened Menem, pulled out before the runoff in the face of certain defeat, and Kirchner was sworn in.

Fernández does not like the label "feminist," but she is a strong critic of "machismo" and sexism. She has traditionally evaded legislative work on commissions that are identified with "women’s" issues, is opposed to the legalisation of abortion, and believes women are better suited than men for homemaking and child-rearing.

She admits that her career has kept her further away from her kids than she would have liked. "I feel guilty, like any woman," she says. "When I was elected to the Senate many reporters asked me how I would deal with raising my kids — something they didn’t ask male legislators."

But her husband understands and encourages her, as he would a professional partner. "This year is Kirchner’s 20th in different executive posts, and it’s my 20th in legislative positions. We are part of the same political project," she says.

Of course, they also have their arguments. "I argue very vehemently," she says. Those who are close to the couple say he does not decide on anything without listening to her first, although afterwards he reaches his own decisions.

She has also made an effort to mark her independence since the day he was elected president. When Kirchner was sworn in, she applauded him from her seat in the Senate. Since then she has insisted on being described as "first (female) citizen" rather than "first lady".

But she has also made use of her public position during her campaign. Like virtually no other president’s wife, she met as equals with leaders from all regions of the world.

In the 2005 legislative elections, she was elected to the Senate in representation of the province of Buenos Aires, the country’s most important, with nearly 40 percent of the vote.

By then, the popular Kirchner was in the middle of his term, and she appeared to be unstoppable. Her name began to be bandied about as her husband’s successor, if he decided not to run for reelection. Finally, it was announced in July that she would be the candidate for the ruling faction of the Justicialista Party, and no one was surprised. It was her turn.